“I Can’t Believe I Have to Write a 250-Word Essay!”  Many things have changed since I went to school but this is not one of them.  Kids still complain about the cruel and unusual punishment meted out by their teachers in the form of the 250-word essay.  Just the other day, I heard one of my kids complaining about one of these assignments.  I had to laugh.

Sure, back in the day, 250 words seemed unbearably lengthy to me too.  Teachers would tell us it was about the length of a handwritten page and I still remember writing in extra-large print to fill the page more quickly and hoping the teachers wouldn’t actually count.  Yes, I went to school before the age of computers and Microsoft Word.  Of course, today’s technique is to enlarge the fonts and increase the margins – the electronic equivalent of printing larger letters.

The other trick that students use to effectively shave about fifty words off the count is to write an intro and conclusion that essentially parrot the body of the work.  Believe it or not, teachers are still teaching that the opening paragraph should summarize what the body of the essay is going to say and the concluding paragraph should reiterate what the body of the essay says.  It’s the classic “say what you are going to say, say it, then say what you said.”  To me, that’s not good writing.  That’s tedious and repetitious.  The opener should frame what the writer is going to say while the essay should end with a bang – a pithy point that leaves the reader thinking or perhaps a particularly insightful wrap-up of the point being made.  But I digress.

What made me laugh is my newfound perspective on just how few words 250 really is.  My first novel is just over 70,000 words.  That’s a lot of 250-word pages.  And I just hit a milestone working on my second novel, having reached the 45,000 word mark and still going.

Not long ago, I found myself writing a blurb about my novel for a website that would be promoting the book and the site had set a word limit.  How great would that have been in school?  A maximum word count rather than a minimum.  The funny thing was that the constraint was, well, constraining.  I struggled mightily to pare down the blurb and distill it to its absolute essence to get within the prescribed limit.  Yes, the world of my youth has been turned upside down.  It is now more difficult to write less than to write more.

So now, when my kids complain about having to write 250 words, I will ask them what their favorite book is and how many pages that book contains.  I will then give them the perspective that the 250-word essay assigned by their slave driving teacher is the equivalent of one measly page in that favorite book.  Not very much after all, is it?


01/17/2012 06:19

I'm an ESL teacher. One day I gave my students the assignment to translate a short text. The students grumbled, so I said, "Come on, it won't take long. It's only 130 words after all." Then a boy looked at me and said, "Who on Earth counts words?"

Writers, that's who.

01/17/2012 07:34

We sure do! In fact, I just hit a milestone this morning on my next novel -- 50,000 words written.


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